Finding joy and creating meaning when living with cancer

When learning to live with cancer, you have a choice as to how you respond. You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to develop an attitude and state of well-being that will facilitate your ability to overcome challenges, by building resilience, coping skills and strategies.

Choosing resilience

Getting to the space of choosing resilience and finding joy is really hard work. It requires daily dedication and choices as you navigate this new space of learning to live with cancer, despite your cancer experience. These choices are ongoing, from diagnosis through treatment into the post-treatment phase.

 Living with uncertainty is indeed a huge challenge. Not only when you have cancer but even now during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It can all become a bit overwhelming and many thoughts and emotions start building up, directly impacting your usual ways of making sense of your reality. It takes courage and strong willpower to start a process that will assist in taking back your control, and engaging with yourself in ways that will support your healing, and focus on living your life fully.

Challenges that come with cancer 

Cancer challenges patients in many ways. These challenges are laden with emotion and consequences for each of us on different levels of intensity. Each challenge is real and needs to be faced as part of your journey. They are difficult to navigate and manage.

  • New reality of being a ‘cancer patient’ 
  • Role changes
  • The stress of loss of self (physical, identity, relational changes)
  • Dealing with side effects of treatment 
  • Loss of leisure and pleasure
  • Work losses – financial impact of illness 
  • Physical changes
  • Fear of losing dignity
  • Fear of loss of independence
  • Changed goals
  • Dreams in life
  • Self-image/self-confidence
  • Dealing with the reality of possibly facing death

Ways to experience more joy, hope and resilience 

  • Discover your power within and develop your ability to be agile of mind, to ensure that you harness the capability to live the life you choose. As the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, said, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.” 
  • Set goals and be driven by what you need to be happy. Joy, hope and meaning doesn’t bestow itself on you. In fact, you must work at being joyful, hopeful and develop strategies for living a meaningful life. 
  • You must take time to engage in thinking and plan strategies to increase your joy. You will only succeed if you practice managing your thoughts. Again, Marcus Aurelius’ words, “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts” are true.
  • The fact remains, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to what happens to you. 
  • You must learn to be courageous and brave, to experience the reality and emotions associated with what happens along life’s journey that makes you vulnerable. This requires self-mastery of your own talents and abilities do things differently. 
  • Opening yourself up to being vulnerable allows for growth and an opportunity to challenge yourself to step up differently.
  • Rewriting your life story is not easy. But being willing to show vulnerability is the only way you’ll be able to facilitate your own healing process and start your own meaning-making process that will increase your joy and hope for you and your family. This means working at a process that encourages healing by taking actions that build hope, resilience and joy. 
  • Connect with your own wisdom and that of others to build yourself up as you navigate the uncertain course of cancer.
  • Empower yourself with knowledge. Ask your team questions and then decide on an action plan for all parts of your life that is acceptable to you. Consider themes like: lifestyle and diet changes; cancer treatment; emotional and spiritual issues; friendships, work, family and intimate relationships; your dreams for yourself and family; and what you need to do to have more fun.
  • Ask for help. You need to see it as a strength, not a weakness. Learn to manage your thoughts, feelings and actions in ways that will support your healing process.
  • Be kind to yourself so that you can become brave enough to face your vulnerability, fears, deep sadness, loss, fear, grief and anger. Healing and meaning-making will not be possible if you are not 100% honest with yourself and the people you love. This is an active process and needs daily goal-setting and action plans with continual monitoring and evaluation of your progress and growth. 

Make every day count 

It’s hard to navigate this process on your own and you may need professional help. This investment will be an important part of your meaning-making process so don’t delay. We all only have one life and will all die, so make every day count! Having meaning creates peace and harmony and the ability to be present in the now.

Linda Greef


Linda Greef is a masters level oncology social worker, with over 30 years experience. Being an ovarian cancer survivor directed her specialising in oncology social work. Her passion to make a difference was born from her work with CANSA in the early 80s, when she was confronted with the inequity of  services that state cancer patients were confronted with.